Sunday, April 29, 2007

Where will Iraq’s refugees go?

The conflict in Iraq is causing a terrible displacement of the population. Those with the means – frequently the ones with the very skills needed to rebuild the country – are fleeing. Thousands have been abandoning their homes every week with approximately half fleeing to other parts of the country and half leaving the country. The Bush administration is concerned that accepting any significant number of Iraqi refugees might indicate it is losing the war. Therefore, it has allowed fewer than 700 Iraqi refugees for resettlement since the invasion out of the approximately 2 million who have fled the country. This compares to 900,000 Vietnamese from the Vietnam conflict and 12,000 Iraqi Shiites following the Gulf War in 1991. U.S. officials have indicated a willingness to take an additional 7000 but the actual number may be lower.

Anna Husarska is a senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee and writes this in today’s Guardian:
Among the many humanitarian disasters produced by the civil war now raging in Iraq is one that is almost invisible. Only rarely do scenes of massive displacement of the civilian population make it on to our television screens, because, unlike bombs and suicide attacks, displacement does not generate the blood, fire, or screams that constitutes compelling footage. Yet the numbers are staggering: each month, some 40,000 Iraqis flee their homes because of the war. Half of them go to other parts of Iraq; the rest go abroad.

Iraq's population, frankly, is bleeding away. This devastation is even more dramatic because, since the invasion four years ago, only 3,183 Iraqis have been resettled in third countries. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, all countries combined have offered a chance to start a new life to approximately the same number of Iraqi refugees as flee the country in just five days.

This exodus is not new, but since the increased violence that followed the bombing of the Shia Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006, the pace of the displacement has accelerated. Indeed, this is the largest population displacement in the Middle East since 1948.

Two million Iraqi refugees are scattered around the region, the great majority of them in Jordan and Syria, with smaller numbers in Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt. Because they are urban refugees - not housed in tents, but rather blending in with the local population in the host countries - they are easily ignored.

For Iraq, this is a brain drain that will be hard to repair. The country had a total population of 26.8 million, and now nearly 13% of them are displaced; many may never return. But what happens to them?

Refugees who are in the country of first asylum usually face three possible choices: return to their homeland, try to integrate in the host country, or be resettled to a third country. But do the Iraqis really have these three choices? Can anyone watching reports of the daily carnage in Iraq envision Iraqis going back?

The answer is no. If the parliament in Baghdad, one of the best protected buildings in the country, can be attacked from within, then no zone in Iraq is Green; they are all Red. Repatriation of Iraqis is unrealistic and definitely out of question for the foreseeable future.

Most Iraqis cannot opt for local integration, either. True, Jordan and Syria let most Iraqis in, but they do not offer a possibility of durable local absorption. Iraqis cannot become permanent residents, and they do not have work permits or access to public health services. In Jordan, Iraqi children cannot go to state schools. It is not a matter of ill will on the part of these countries; they simply cannot afford to extend these services. Helping them to cope with the influx of refugees is necessary, but it is not a durable solution.

This leaves the third possibility - that of resettlement. But for this to happen, countries with traditionally generous refugee programmes should come forward and offer more places to receive Iraqis. The United States is a bad example: only 692 refugees have been accepted since the invasion - roughly the number of Iraqis who are killed every week. In February, the Bush administration announced that it will offer resettlement this year to 7,000 Iraqi refugees. If America makes good on this promise, it would be a big step forward, but the US, which led the intervention in Iraq, should now lead in attending to the victims.
Should the US not take the lead, the only hope is that other countries will be more generous. The refugees are a crisis that cannot be ignored: the international community must alleviate the burden on the countries in the region, while offering resettlement opportunities to many more of the most vulnerable Iraqis.

Friday, April 27, 2007

More Friday Fun: Who's on first?

Abbott and Costello perform their classic skit.

Senator Joseph Biden and Iraq

A “surge” in Baghdad alone won’t quell the nation’s civil war – it needs to be nationwide if the intention is for meaningful military success. It has taken four years for Iraq to deteriorate under the noses of American policy makers to the point it is now and it will take a long time across the entire country to stabilize. And unless the United States engages Iraq’s neighbors and the international community, as recommended by the Baker Commission, into assisting in various ways then regardless of what the military does the mission is doomed. Iraq should be everyone’s problem – not a U.S. problem. However, the Bush administration refuses to do the political work necessary and even is working against stability in Iraq by antagonizing Iraq’s neighbors. The current policy is clearly a failure.

The Democrats in Congress, on the other hand, while seeking to fill the leadership vacuum left by the White House is spending too much time simply reacting to the Bush administration’s missteps and not enough time putting together a plan for what’s next following the setting of timetables for the withdrawal of American troops. Democrats should be under no illusions about the dangers of an unstable Iraq. The war doesn’t end with the withdrawal of American troops – rather, in all likelihood it will intensify and could spread throughout the region outside Iraq’s borders.

Given the importance of the issue of the Iraq War to our nation it is a shame that the most Democratic candidates for President have not articulated to the public a detailed plan about Iraq. Like the congressional leadership they tend to be reacting to Bush’s bungling rather than presenting concrete policy alternatives.

At least one exception has been Senator Joseph Biden who, as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, it quite familiar with the Iraqi disaster and have given quite a bit of thought to an alternative policy of a “soft” partition with a continued but reduced U.S. presence. This partition simply recognizes what is already happening (and the U.S. military is acknowledging by building walls separated Baghdad neighborhoods).

Unfortunately, as a second-tier candidate with a motor-mouth personality he is unlikely to be a serious contender in next years’ primaries. That said, it would reflect well on the top tier candidates to include Biden in their shadow cabinet.

This is Michael Hirsh’s assessment in Newsweek:
Biden, on the other hand, has been on the record for a year with a fully thought-out vision for Iraq that offers a real alternative to the bleak choice we’re getting from everyone else. Let’s face it, the “debate” pits the Bush administration’s model-democracy delusion against the Democrats’ let’s-just-get-out state of denial. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee—far and away the most experienced foreign-policy hand among the Democratic candidates—has proposed a quasi-partition plan that actually does reflect the bloody reality emerging on the ground. His scheme calls for dividing Iraq into three or more separate regions held together by a loose central government, thus clearing the way for withdrawing most U.S. troops by 2008. It’s a solution, not a surrender, and it’s what they used to call realpolitik.

History, in fact, has moved decisively in Biden’s direction. The Bush “surge” plan is utterly bogged down, as Gen. David Petraeus came close to acknowledging in remarks to Pentagon reporters Thursday. And with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seemingly paralyzed over plans for federalism, oil-revenue sharing and amnesty for Baathists, the dream of reconciliation is turning into dust. “I think we’re moving toward a de facto partition,” says a U.S. Army officer involved in training U.S. advisers to the Iraqi Army at Fort Riley, Kansas (a program that is moving at the same slow pace as it was last fall because U.S. combat brigades are now on the front lines in Iraq rather than being rotated out so their commanders and noncommissioned officers could be turned into advisers). U.S. counterinsurgency officials working under Petraeus have begun to acknowledge the reality of the spheres of influence carved out by tribesmen and Shiite militias. They even went so far as to try to erect an Israeli-style barrier between Shia and Sunni neighborhoods, though that was voted down by the ever-cautious Maliki.

Biden predicted much of this. …

And for a guy best known for putting his foot in his mouth—the very day Biden announced his candidacy, he almost sunk it with some ill-considered comments on Obama that rankled African-Americans—the Delaware senator has mustered some real eloquence about Iraq. Consider what he said in his floor speech this week on the spending bill:

“History suggests only there’s only a couple … ways to keep together a country driven by sectarian strife. And it’s not to put American troops into a city of 6.2 million people to try to quell a civil war. Throughout history four things have worked. You occupy the country for a generation or more. That’s not in our DNA—we’re not the Persian Empire or the British Empire. You install a dictator. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony for the United States—to go back after taking one down and install another one? You let them fight it out until one side massacres the other—that’s not an option in that tinderbox part of the world. Or lastly, you make federalism work for the Iraqis. You give them control over the fabric of their daily lives. You separate the parties. You give them breathing room. Let them control their local police, their education, their religion and marriage.”

That’s about what’s happening on the ground right now. Partition of some kind—with a nominal but weak central government—is probably no longer a choice in Iraq. We can either help it along responsibly or stand in its way while once again we misread the situation. Biden has this one right. He may have little chance to win the presidency—he’s way down in the polls—but the word was that John Kerry would have made him his secretary of State in 2004. If Clinton, Obama or any of the other Democrats gain the White House in 2008, they might want to make Joe Biden the same offer.

Friday Fun: Spike Jones and the City Slickers

"I Like To Sock Myself In The Face" -- entertainment at its most basic level.

“Signals” and Iraq War policy

There’s a saying, “if you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Well, O.K., the saying may be a little dated but the point is if you have a message to communicate you should use a communications medium and not try to communicate by other means.

In the debate about the war in Iraq there have been several references to signals one action or another might communicate to our allies, our enemies or our troops. However, it is important to remember we do not go to war and determine policy to send messages – there are less expensive and more efficient ways to communicate if that is our objective. Rather, war is fought and policy is set to achieve specific objectives – anything less is a prescription for defeat.

David Shorr puts it this way at Democracy Arsenal:
A lot of talk about "signals" lately. Signals to the enemy. Signals to the troops. Anyone who has read Sy Hersh's 1982 book on Kissinger, Nixon, and Vietnam, The Price of Power (out of print, unfortunately), should be extremely wary of military action as a communication medium. We should always ask whether the signal we're sending is the same one being received by the other side.

Force is sometimes necessary to achieve military, political, and strategic objectives. It can also be an effective complement to diplomacy. But in all these contexts, the connection to the desired aims must be specific and explicit, rather than general and vague. Once you adopt the demonstration of resolve as your aim, you have put yourself in a box and will have a hard time getting out.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Repeating the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq

Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, a commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, has published a critique of the military leadership in Iraq in the Armed Forces Journal. According to the Washington Post, the article reflects a split in the officer corps between younger mid-level officers and older generals.

The article is very critical of the way generals have failed to plan for wars of the future, failed to adopt counterinsurgency tactics in a timely manner, failed to adequately inform the civilian leadership of true costs of war (including the number of troops needed), and have been overly optimistic about the likelihood of success. Lt. Col. Yingling compares the situation in Iraq with Vietnam and calls for more Congressional oversight of Generals.

Lt. Col. Yingling writes,
For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq's grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

Armies do not fight wars; nations fight wars. War is not a military activity conducted by soldiers, but rather a social activity that involves entire nations. Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted that passion, probability and policy each play their role in war. Any understanding of war that ignores one of these elements is fundamentally flawed.

The passion of the people is necessary to endure the sacrifices inherent in war. Regardless of the system of government, the people supply the blood and treasure required to prosecute war. The statesman must stir these passions to a level commensurate with the popular sacrifices required. When the ends of policy are small, the statesman can prosecute a conflict without asking the public for great sacrifice. Global conflicts such as World War II require the full mobilization of entire societies to provide the men and materiel necessary for the successful prosecution of war. The greatest error the statesman can make is to commit his nation to a great conflict without mobilizing popular passions to a level commensurate with the stakes of the conflict.

Popular passions are necessary for the successful prosecution of war, but cannot be sufficient. To prevail, generals must provide policymakers and the public with a correct estimation of strategic probabilities. The general is responsible for estimating the likelihood of success in applying force to achieve the aims of policy. The general describes both the means necessary for the successful prosecution of war and the ways in which the nation will employ those means. If the policymaker desires ends for which the means he provides are insufficient, the general is responsible for advising the statesman of this incongruence. The statesman must then scale back the ends of policy or mobilize popular passions to provide greater means. If the general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with insufficient means, he shares culpability for the results.

However much it is influenced by passion and probability, war is ultimately an instrument of policy and its conduct is the responsibility of policymakers. War is a social activity undertaken on behalf of the nation; Augustine counsels us that the only purpose of war is to achieve a better peace. The choice of making war to achieve a better peace is inherently a value judgment in which the statesman must decide those interests and beliefs worth killing and dying for. The military man is no better qualified than the common citizen to make such judgments. He must therefore confine his input to his area of expertise — the estimation of strategic probabilities.

America's generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America's generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq. Finally, America's generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.

The intellectual and moral failures common to America's general officer corps in Vietnam and Iraq constitute a crisis in American generalship. Any explanation that fixes culpability on individuals is insufficient. No one leader, civilian or military, caused failure in Vietnam or Iraq. Different military and civilian leaders in the two conflicts produced similar results. In both conflicts, the general officer corps designed to advise policymakers, prepare forces and conduct operations failed to perform its intended functions. …
You can read the entire article here.

Guns, mental health and Virginia Tech

Authorities involved in the investigation of the Virginia Tech massacre report the shooter was able to get off 170 shots in nine minutes with his two semi-automatic handguns. That’s a shot about every three seconds leaving thirty dead plus the shooter and fifteen wounded. (Two others were murdered at a separate shooting earlier.)

The media has focused on sappy feel-good (or feel-sad) stories and have tried to elevate this very real tragedy into a national trauma comparable to September 11th. However, despite efforts by some to avoid debate about larger issues regarding handguns that debate, as well as how to improve our community mental health systems, needs to move forward. The issues of mental health and guns in society just happened to have overlapped in this particular instance but both need attention. (Interestingly, we have not been advised – that I am aware of – that it is a violation of common decency to discuss issues about the mental health system. Only guns.)

NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) has some recommendations on their web site in reaction to the Virginia Tech shooting. There is also article from their fall newsletter about mental illness issues on college campuses. These can be starting points for discussion.

But as Robert Reich points out there is no small amount of irony that it is easier to get a gun than a prescription for Prozac:
In the United States, if you are seriously depressed, you can purchase anti-depressive drugs like Prozac, but only if you have a prescription from a doctor. Anti-depressants are enormously beneficial to millions of people but they are also potentially dangerous if used improperly. So, you have to see a doctor and get an assessment before you can go to a drug store and purchase one.

But in the United States, in places like Virginia, a seriously depressed or deranged person can walk into a store and buy a semi-automatic handgun and a box of ammunition. All you need is two forms of identification. You don’t need permission from a doctor or counselor or anyone in the business of screening people to make sure they’re fit to have a gun.
Of course, there are some loose restrictions to purchasing guns in Virginia but the Virginia Tech shooter fell through the cracks in the law. These restrictions are loose for a reason – there is a lobby that works hard to keep it that way. This editorial from today’s New York Times that sums up the situation:
… The National Rifle Association and the gun lobby have silenced every legislature in this country. Instead of stricter laws, tighter controls and better background checks, the gun lobby proposes more guns. And what the gun lobby proposes, lawmakers deliver.

Seung-Hui Cho bought his guns illegally, though with the appearance of legality. He slipped through a loophole, through a disconnect between the way Virginia defines a disqualifying mental incapacity and the way the federal government does. After the fact, the loophole is self-evident, and it’s tempting to believe that now political leaders will work harder to keep people who are dangers to themselves from becoming dangers to others by buying guns. But the laws are as fragile and imperfect as they are because that is how the gun lobby wants them — and it is paying good money to keep them that way.

Those gun advocates who believe that the Second Amendment confers the right to carry a gun in public are quick to point out that they are law-abiding, decent citizens trying to protect themselves and their families in a world gone mad. But, of course, the guns can’t tell the difference. Arming more people would be a recipe for disaster.

True safety lies in the civility of society, in laws that publicly protect all of our rights and in having law-enforcement officers who are trained in the use of deadly force, then authorized to apply it in rationally defined situations. It is the gun lobby’s incessant efforts to weaken the gun laws that makes a tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech possible.
I don’t pretend to have the answers but I do know the time is overdue to start asking questions.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Syria jails human rights activist Anwar Al-Bunni

Anwar Al-Bunni, a Syrian human rights and pro-democracy advocate, has been sentenced to five years in prison by a Syrian court for the crime of “spreading hostile information.” Bunni was arrested in May of 2006 and has been held in detention ever since. According to Amnesty International, “Anwar Al-Bunni was arrested along with 10 other people for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, a petition calling for the normalisation of relations between Syria and Lebanon. Since his arrest on 17 May 2006, he has been detained at ‘Adra prison, near Damascus, where he has been subjected to bad treatment.”

“The court convicted him of spreading false or exaggerated news that could weaken national morale, affiliating with an unlicensed political association with an international nature, discrediting state institutions and contacting a foreign country, his lawyer Khalil Matouk said,” according to the BBC.

This from the International Herald Tribune:
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: Syrian court Tuesday sentenced a prominent human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, to five years in prison for "spreading false information damaging the country," his attorneys said, handing down one of the harshest sentences in the Syrian regime's yearlong crackdown on opposition.

An attorney for Bunni, Razan Zaitounah, said the Damascus criminal court had sentenced Bunni for "spreading false information" about torture in Syrian prisons, about which Bunni had written and been interviewed.

In addition to the prison sentence, Bunni was ordered to pay a $2,000 fine for operating his Center for Development for Civil Society - started in 2006 with help from a European Union grant - without official permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.

"This is against human rights, and it's not only an unjust verdict for Anwar - it's an unjust verdict for the Syrian nation," said Ragheda Issa, Bunni's wife, speaking by telephone Tuesday evening.

But most of all, Bunni's attorneys and many analysts said, the verdict appeared to be a stark warning to the Syrian opposition.

Bunni's prison sentence far exceeded the typical three years other Syrians convicted on the same charges have received, further underscoring the political nature of the ruling, Bunni's attorneys and Syrian analysts said.

"It was a message to the entire opposition movement: Pursue democracy, get punished," said Razan Zaitounah, an attorney on Bunni's defense team.

Witnesses said the courtroom was hushed as the judge read the verdict Tuesday morning, then erupted in shock at the harshness of the sentence.

"It's not a matter of what Anwar did; the regime is trying to send a message to the opposition movement, and that is: 'Shut up!,' " said Yassin Hajj Salih, a columnist and analyst linked to the opposition who attended the court session Tuesday. "The regime wants activists to be afraid, to be careful of what they do."

Bunni, who has himself represented numerous opposition figures in the past and who has been jailed several times, has often drawn the ire of the government for his work as the director of the legal rights center, financed partly by the European Union, which was established by a Belgian nongovernmental organization. The center was closed after his arrest.

Syria has long been intolerant of political opposition, in the past jailing critics of the regime for 10- and 15-year sentences. But when Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his late father, Hafez, in 2000, the government released many opposition figures from prison and sought to be more lenient with those who spoke out.

However, under growing international pressure amid allegations of Syrian collusion in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005, as well as allegations by the Bush administration that Syria had aided militants seeking to enter Iraq through Syria, the government began to crack down on dissent early last year.

Bunni is the first among several opposition figures on trial to be convicted. Michel Kilo, a columnist and government critic who openly argued for a change of policy on Lebanon, was arrested shortly before Bunni in May, too, as was another columnist, Mahmoud Issa.

The men were rounded up after they signed a petition calling for a radical overhaul of Syria's relations with neighboring Lebanon.

Human rights groups said Tuesday that the verdict showed the lack of concern for human rights in Syria.
"The Syrian government has just reminded the entire world that it has absolutely no respect for the rights of its citizens to express themselves freely," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Virginia Tech massacre and the vice of common decency

Last week, thirty-two students and faculty at Virginia Tech University were gunned down by an insane young man using semi-automatic weapons.

Bart Hinkle is the deputy editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and later that day on his blog he wrote “common decency would suggest—would demand—a moratorium of at least a day or two before either side in the gun-control war starts repeating its hobbyhorse talking points. There will be plenty of time for each side to exploit the episode later—as they inevitably will.” The next day, Hinkle wrote an otherwise thoughtful piece about the tragedy but couldn’t help himself to not include a jab at those concerned about the means of death – i.e. guns. It’s nice for Mr. Hinkle to be so concerned about common decency but when “common decency” is a codeword for suppressing democratic debate about legitimate issues it is bullshit. Appealing to common decency becomes another way of preserving the status quo -- particularly when Mr. Hinkle’s newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and its owner, Media General, seem to know no bounds on common decency by engaging for the past week in the voyeurism of those driving by a bloody accident scene. Each day multiple pages have been devoted to this crime as if it were a national tragedy of the scale of September 11th.

We are a nation fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a third one brewing with Iran but you would not know it from reading the Times-Dispatch this past week. The Virginia Tech massacre was legitimate news. However, of the enormous amount of space devoted to the shootings very little carried news. There were mostly “soft” stories. Fluff replacing news has been the pattern for the TD during the past few years but the newspaper outdid itself this past week exploiting the private pain and loss of the unfortunate victims in Blacksburg and their friends and family. It is no wonder the students at Virginia Tech are fed up with this kind of baloney and have asked journalists to leave the campus.

The editorial in yesterday’s paper repeated the line that those engaged in debate are exploiting the Virginia Tech incident and this debate “diminishes the tragedy and insults the victims.” This is an editorial in the same publication that ran a picture the full width of the newspaper on the front page above the fold on Thursday of the deranged young man responsible for the killings with both his guns pointed at the camera. One can only imagine what the victims felt about the prominent display given that particular photograph of the killer in that very threatening pose in the newspaper worried about victims being insulted.

Media like the Times-Dispatch help feed the cultural monster of narcissism (i.e., reality is simply a reflection of ourselves) that turns empathy from a virtue into a vice. It cannot be emphasized enough how horrible the Virginia Tech incident was for those directly and indirectly involved. We can be bewildered, angry or scared by what happened in Blacksburg but the pain they suffered is not ours. As Rosa Brooks argues “Convincing ourselves that we've been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime.”

Rosa Brooks has these thoughts from Friday’s L.A. Times:
… There's something fraudulent about this eagerness to latch onto the grief of others and embrace the idea that we, too, have been victimized. This trivializes the pain felt by those who have actually lost something and pathologizes normal reactions to tragedy. Empathy is good, but feeling shocked and saddened by the shootings doesn't make us traumatized or special — these feelings make us normal.

Our self-indulgent conviction that we have all been traumatized also operates, ironically, to shut down empathy for other, less media-genic victims. On the day of the Virginia Tech shooting, for instance, Army Sgt. Mario K. De Leon of San Francisco (like the Virginia Tech victims) died of "wounds sustained from enemy small-arms fire". On Wednesday, car bombs killed at least 172 people in Baghdad. But no one has set up a special MySpace page to commemorate those dead.

Our collective insistence that we all share in the Virginia Tech trauma is a form of anti-politics, one that blinds us to the distinctions between different kinds and degrees of suffering.

On Wednesday, USA Today worried about the effects of "the trauma this generation [of young people] has witnessed….The Oklahoma City bombing. Columbine. Sept. 11. The space shuttle disasters. Hurricane Katrina. And now Virginia Tech. Previous generations … had their allotment of horrors — two world wars, Vietnam … but no cohort of American youth has ever endured repeated mass catastrophes in the … 24/7 media environment."
Excuse me? More than 400,000 American soldiers died in World War II, and 58,000 died in the Vietnam War, but the Millennial Generation is uniquely traumatized because it has watched sad things on TV?

Lumping together the space shuttle disasters, Columbine and Virginia Tech with terrorism, natural disasters and war dangerously decontextualizes these disparate events.

The Virginia Tech massacre was catastrophic for the victims and their loved ones, but, unlike war, it was not catastrophic for the nation. Yet President Bush — who refuses to attend the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq because that might "politicize" the war his administration started — ordered all federal flags at half-staff and rushed to Blacksburg to bemoan the "day of sadness for the entire nation." It's a good strategy. People busy holding candlelight vigils for the deaths in Blacksburg don't have much time left over to protest the war in Iraq.

The insistence on collective mourning even operates to depoliticize the Virginia Tech tragedy. Those who made the mistake of suggesting that the massacre might lead us to consider tighter gun regulation were quickly told to shut up because this is "a moment for grief," not politics.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Wiping out global warming

Sheryl Crow has proposed on her website that individuals be limited to only one square of toilet paper per restroom visit except, of course, when those “pesky occasions” that require two or three. This would be to limit wastefulness and help the environment.

The singer is on a concert tour with Laurie David promoting awareness about global warming.

This from the BBC:
Singer Sheryl Crow has said the amount of toilet paper we
use should be limited to help the environment.

Crow suggests using "only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where two to three could be required".

The 45-year-old, who made the comment on her website, has just toured the US on a biodiesel-powered bus to raise awareness about climate change.

She teamed up with environmental activist Laurie David for the shows.

The pair targeted 11 university campuses to persuade students to help combat the world's environmental problems.

The show included a short set by the singer, a talk by David and segments of Al Gore's environmental film An Inconvenient Truth.

On their last date, which ended on Sunday at the George Washington University in Washington, Crow performed with Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Carole King.

David's husband, Seinfeld creator Larry David, also appeared.

Crow has also commented on her website about how she thinks paper napkins "represent the height of wastefulness."

She has designed a clothing line that has what she calls a "dining sleeve".

The sleeve is detachable and can be replaced with another "dining sleeve" after the diner has used it to wipe their mouth.

Friday, April 20, 2007

More Friday Fun: Curly Vs. The Oyster Stew

The U.S. presidency as quasi-monarchy

How many times during the current scandal over the U.S. Attorneys and presidential powers have we heard the phrase “serve at the pleasure of the president” or in reference to the growing number of international conflicts we seem to find ourselves in we hear the President referred to as the “commander in chief”? These are phrases and terms better suited for a monarchy than a republic.

There is so much that is out-of-whack structurally with our system of government and how we put that government in power that should be of concern to those believe in a democratic system of self rule. A significant portion of the problems pertains to executive power in the possession of one person: the President. It is hard to know where to begin on the long road to democratic reform

Sandford Levison has a novel idea that may be a tiny baby step but it certainly is a tiny baby step in the right direction. As background it is important to point out the administration that governs the country consists of thousands of people but we elect only one – the President. (Well, actually, because of the Electoral College we really don’t elect the President but we’ll save that issue for another post at a later date.) Those responsible for overseeing the day-to-day work of the government and reporting directly to the President are his cabinet. Since the makeup of the President’s cabinet reflect a lot of how the administration will govern why not inform voters in advance of the election of who the candidate intends to select as his (or her) cabinet if elected?

Here is Levison’s proposal:

There are many things that are objectionable about our current presidentialist system, but one of its most important defects is the way we in effect treat a presidential candidate as a quasi-monarch. There is no serious discussion during a campaign about who, specifically, will be asked to fill such important Cabinet positions as secretary of State, secretary of Defense, secretary of the Treasury, and attorney general. (This is obviously not meant to be an exhaustive list of important positions about which we need information in order to cast an informed vote.) The lucky winner gets de facto carte blanche, save for truly unusual exceptions like Ronald Reagan's choice of John Tower to be secretary of Defense, to pick whomever he wishes. John Kennedy notably picked for his secretary of State someone he had never met, perhaps because, like many presidents, he thought he could make his own foreign policy through charm and "back-channel" contacts. Dean Rusk may have had many sterling qualities, but his judgment as secretary of State was not one of them. Senate confirmation hearings are perfunctory, especially if the Senate is controlled by the president's own party. The tradition is that, like a monarch, the president is entitled to pick his (or, perhaps in 2009, her) palace staff, without serious oversight with regard to the process of selection. Does a president want his brother (Robert Kennedy) or campaign manager (John Mitchell) to serve as attorney general? Sure, why not? Is it conceivable, I wonder, that either JFK or Nixon would have dared suggest such questionable (if not outright illegitimate) appointments during the campaign itself? (That RFK staffed the DOJ with many truly great appointees was lucky for the country, but it does not legitimize his own appointment.)

It would be good not only for the country to have some genuine idea what an actual administration might look like. It would also be good for the candidate, who
would not have to spend the "transition" making dozens of choices. Instead, the president- to-be might actually use the time more valuably to become ever more knowledgeable about the problems that he/she will shortly be dealing with. Or, in the alternative, if candidates actually had to construct cabinets during the run-up to the election, then perhaps we could also eliminate another pernicious feature of our present system, which is the 10-week hiatus between election and inauguration, during which a discredited and defeated incumbent may have all sorts of opportunities to make mischief for his successor. (The Brits install their new PMs the day after the election, I believe, something made possible by the fact that there is always a "shadow government" in waiting.)

So maybe it is time to press the candidates. Who is Obama’s shadow government in waiting? Clinton? Romney? Etc. These are some of the most important decisions the President-elect will make. Don’t we the voters have a right to know this before we cast our ballots? Or are we electing a monarch?

Friday Fun: "My Generation"

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Virginia Tech massacre, media misinformation and Chinese panic

Whatever happened to the Chinese national here on a student visa identified as the gunman at the Virginia Tech massacre by the Chicago Sun-Times? It turns out he never existed but the incorrect identification caused a panic among the Chinese elite on how to present the story to the Chinese public. The censorship machine kicked in for several hours until it was learned the gunman was really a Korean.

James Fallows, writing from China for the Atlantic magazine, has this interesting account:
It was Tuesday night China time when the authorities in Blacksburg, Virginia, identified the gunman as a young Korean. For the previous 12 hours, the worst traits in the Chinese media had been brought out by an even-worse lapse by part of the U.S. media. One — and as far as I can tell, only one — journalist in the U.S. identified the killer publicly and quickly as a student from China who had recently been given his visa in Shanghai. During the long night after the shooting U.S. time, which was daytime Tuesday in China, that report was picked up — surprise! — by Fox news and a few smaller U.S. outlets, and, via web news sites, it quickly made its way to China.

What the Chinese media did next was bad in a predictable way. Many web links to outside news of the shooting were blocked to limit subsequent details from reaching China. As reported in this blog from Beijing, parts of CCTV and the other official news outlets downplayed all announcements about the shooting until they could be sure what the “correct” Chinese angle would turn out to be. Meanwhile some other Chinese press web sites reported the news — and the suspicion, emanating from America, that the killer was Chinese. I have friends in the U.S. consulate here, and I could imagine them tearing through the visa records yesterday, trying to figure out who the student might possibly have been, and which consular officer had stamped Approved! on his papers.

Why all this flurry, over a suspect who proved to have nothing to do with the Shanghai consulate or China at all? As best I can tell, the alarm in the world’s most populous nation was caused by one person, the (female) columnist Michael Sneed of the Chicago Sun Times. The crucial story she apparently wrote soon after the shooting now seems to have been sand-blasted out of the Sun Times archives, with no notice that it was ever there. … But its existence and influence can be traced through fossil records like this one, from station WBBM in Chicago. Its story said:

Sneed: Shooter Was Chinese National On Student Visa

CHICAGO (WBBM) - Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reports the gunman was a 25-year-old Chinese national who came to the United States last year on a student visa.

Citing an unidentified source, investigators have not linked the man to any terror groups.

Sneed reports the man arrived in the U.S. in San Francisco on a visa issued in Shanghai.

Three bomb threats on the Virginia Tech campus last week may have been attempts by the gunman to test the campus security response, according to the Sneed report…
Another, from the NBC affiliatiate in Chicago, said:

CHICAGO — Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reported Monday that the Virginia Tech shooter is a 24-year-old man from China.

More than 30 people were killed Monday in the shooting rampage on Virginia Tech University’s campus. According to Sneed, the man came to the U.S. last year on a student visa issued in Shanghai.

Police believe the same man may be responsible for threats on campus last week, Sneed reported.
Meanwhile it was striking through the day that no “real” news source stepped up to confirm Sneed’s report. (The ones who passed it along were Drudge and Fox.) But eventually the Chinese started to assume that it must be true. Otherwise, how could an American journalist dare go public, fast and alone, with a detailed claim sure to cause international ripples?

How indeed? It turns out the “normal” media were right to wait; that every detail of Sneed’s story about the Chinese culprit was wrong; and that something went wrong in the basic journalistic process here.

Will Sneed spend much time apologizing? My guess is no. If you follow the links from the existing fossil stories back to the Sneed column with the original made-in-China claim, you’ll find that the claim is no longer there. The links themselves have been redirected, to lead to updated and sanitized stories … in which Sneed discusses only the eventual culprit, Cho. Neither has anything to say about the Chinese student and his previous role in the case, nor Sneed’s. …

1.3 billion Chinese people are grateful to you, Michael Sneed — grateful the alarm created singlehandedly by you proved false. They hold endless seminars on media ethics here, on the theory that this can help shape up a state-controlled press. Maybe you’d like to come speak? I guarantee you’d draw a crowd.
For the record, this is from the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s web site:
Some details emerging in national, international reports
Laura Bland

April 16, 2007 11:03 PM

The Chicago Sun-Times is saying in an exclusive report that authorities are investigating whether the man who shot and killed 33 people on the Virginia Tech campus Monday was a Chinese man traveling on a student visa.
Fallows has a follow-up to his original report here.

Iraq: What’s next?

Let’s assume for a minute that President Bush’s “surge” in Iraq succeeds. What’s next? Or, let’s assume it fails. What’s next? Let’s assume the Congress succeeds imposing timetables to begin troop withdrawals. What’s next? If anyone in Washington is giving much thought to next steps then they are keeping it pretty much to themselves.

The White House has invested so much in seeking a military solution to what is increasingly a political problem that they have lost sight of any plan to stabilize the region and without that plan Iraq will continue to deteriorate. The “surge” is just a variation of the administration’s blundering and lack of planning. Wishful thinking is not a strategic plan.

The Democrats, even though they are not yet in a position of executive leadership, are now in control of the legislative branch of government and are attempting to fill the vacuum of leadership for the country’s foreign policy. The problem is the Democrats have not gotten beyond simply reacting to the administration’s screw-ups and have not yet jointly formulated a foreign policy with vision. The Democratic candidates for President have been somewhat vague on what their strategic vision of what the United States should be doing in Iraq and the surrounding area. (Senator Joseph Biden may be an exception but as a second-tier presidential candidate it is unlikely his ideas will receive much of a public hearing.)

Trudy Rubin has written an interesting piece for yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer about the opinions of Marine Gen. John "Jack" Sheehan, who turned down an offer by the White House to become “war czar” overseeing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and Ali Allawi, a former official with the Iraqi government. Both men are concerned about the lack of overall vision and plans for the region. She writes:
If you want to know the only plan that has a chance of saving Iraq, I have a suggestion.

Read the words of two wise men. The first, Marine Gen. John "Jack" Sheehan, is one of at least five retired four-stars who declined to be considered for a new White House post of war "czar" for Afghanistan and Iraq.

The second, Ali Allawi, is one of the smartest officials to serve in the Iraqi government since Saddam fell, but left Baghdad in despair over the direction his government has taken. Author of The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, he spoke at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia this week.

Both men lament the failure of the Bush team to focus on what happens after the surge. (Add the failure of Democrats to focus on what happens after a troop withdrawal.)

"The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going," Sheehan told the Washington Post, in explaining why he rejected the White House offer. Sheehan argues that the administration has no broad, long-range vision for the Mideast region. "Activities such as the current surge . . . should fit into an overall strategic framework," he says. "The current Washington decision-making process lacks a linkage to a broader view of the region and how the parts fit together strategically."

In other words, the White House is focused on tactics such as the surge, but lacks the vision to recognize that Iraq's problems require more than military solutions.

"The Iraq invasion has created a real and existential crisis for nearly all Mideastern countries," Sheehan says. Without a new regional framework that draws in all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, a surge won't stabilize the country. Only intense U.S. diplomacy could do that.

Allawi also argues for a new regional framework. "The invasion of Iraq shattered the previous framework of [Middle East] relations," he says. It ended the domination of Iraq's Sunni minority and put the Shiite Muslim majority in power. It also strengthened the Shiite rulers of Iran.

Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are frightened of Iran's increasing power; the Saudis worry Iran will stir up their Shiite minority. So money flows from Sunni Arab states to Iraq's Sunni insurgents. Iran, on the other hand, is helping the Shiite-led government of Iraq and funding Shiite militias. How can Iraq become stable while its neighbors are supporting opposing factions inside?

U.S. policy toward this problem is schizophrenic. The White House is encouraging Sunni Arab states to unite against Iran and has no direct contacts with Tehran. Yet promoting regional rivalry exacerbates the fighting inside Iraq.

Allawi says Americans "should not withdraw your troops" before settling the broader issues. He says the United States should use its troops as leverage "to push for some kind of new regional framework. We need a diplomatic solution." The timing of U.S. troop withdrawals could be an issue in those talks.

"Somebody has to look after the crockery shop," Allawi adds, "after the china is broken." The reference is to Colin Powell's famous "Pottery Barn rules" - if we broke Iraq we would own it.

Allawi wants the United States to help convene an international congress that would design new rules for Iraq and the region. It would also involve Europeans, U.N. officials, Iraq's neighbors, and Iraqi government leaders. It would have to address the security concerns of both Iran and Sunni Arab countries.

Sound far-fetched? Not if you consider the alternative – sectarian war that continues after the surge ends and unsettles the whole region.

But so far, the White House has refused to engage in serious international diplomacy. To do so would require rethinking its policy toward Tehran. It would require admitting the Iraq invasion has pushed the entire Mideast to the edge.

Indeed, Gen. Sheehan told the Post he believed Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies were still blocking the pragmatists in the administration. "So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, 'No thanks,' " Sheehan explained.

Americans and Iraqis, however, still face the mess produced by the White House's strategic blinders. If President Bush won't take the advice of men like Sheehan and Allawi, that mess will undermine the entire Middle East.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Kurdistan, Iraq and Turkey

If there has been any success in Iraq it has been in Kurdistan – the northern region of Iraq populated by the country’s non-Arab Kurdish people. The Kurds suffered under the rule of Saddam Hussein who seemed bent on genocide to eliminate them particularly during the notorious Anfal campaign between 1987 and 1989 when poison gas was used on the civilian population and thousands of villages, towns and cities were destroyed. The No-Fly zone over northern Iraq following the Gulf War allowed the Kurdish people to develop the region politically and economically without major interference from Baghdad. Following the overthrow of Hussein the Kurds have prospered and have been the only reliable indigenous allies to the U.S. in Iraq.

Unlike other peoples, the Kurds did not receive self-rule following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Rather, their region was divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Armenia with the Kurds a minority in each country. An autonomous Kurdish state has been the dream of many Kurds for a very long time. There has been Kurdish political movements and various stages of unrest particularly in Iraq, Iran and especially Turkey over several decades.

The Turks have been engaged in a running battle with Kurdish separatists for quite some time and have not been happy about the development of a quasi-independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Tensions are rising in the region and Turkey, a member of NATO, is making noises of a possible invasion pitting two U.S. allies against one another, destabilizing the only stable part of Iraq, and possibly giving Iran, who has concerns about the Kurds similar to Turkey, an excuse for interference across Iraq’s northeastern border. The United States needs to be putting a full-court diplomatic press in action to prevent this conflict from happening.

David Ignatius has this analysis in this morning’s Washington Post:
While the Bush administration struggles to stabilize Baghdad, a major new threat is emerging in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. If it isn't defused, this crisis could further erode U.S. goals in Iraq -- drawing foreign military intervention, splintering the country further and undermining U.S. hopes for long-term military bases in Kurdistan.

The core issue is Kurdish nationalism, which worries Iraq's powerful northern neighbor, Turkey, which has a substantial Kurdish minority. The Bush administration has tried to finesse the problem, hoping to keep two friends happy: The Kurds have been America's most reliable partner in Iraq, while the Turks are a crucial ally in the region. But in recent weeks, this strategy has been breaking down.

As with so many aspects of Iraq, the Bush administration has wandered into a conflict that is encrusted with centuries of ethnic hatred. Iraqi Kurds push their politicians toward defiant assertions of independence; Turks are demanding that their leaders move to crush the Kurdish upstarts. Meanwhile, the American public is increasingly fed up with the fractious mess of Iraq and wants U.S. troops home yesterday.

The administration, realizing that it was drifting toward a confrontation over the Kurdish issue, last year appointed retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston as a special emissary. His mission is to urge the Iraqis to crack down on the militant Kurdish political party known as the PKK, which uses Iraqi Kurdistan as a staging point. The Turks denounce the PKK as a terrorist group and threaten that if the United States doesn't take decisive action to suppress it, the Turkish army will.

Ralston is said to have warned top administration officials in December that the Turks might invade by the end of April unless the United States contained the PKK. Other knowledgeable officials are similarly worried, and one analyst has predicted that the Turks may seize a border strip about eight miles deep into Iraq. Ralston has tried his best to defuse the crisis, clearing a Kurdish refugee camp of suspected PKK members and talking regularly with both sides. But the time bomb continues to tick.

A flash point is Kirkuk, an oil-rich city claimed by the Kurds, which the Turks regard as a special protectorate because of its large Turkmen population. The new Iraqi constitution calls for a referendum by December on the city's future, and the Kurds are confident they will win the vote. The Turks, fearing the same outcome, want the referendum delayed. The Bush administration seems to favor a delay but hasn't said so publicly, to avoid angering the Kurds and undermining the constitution.

Turks and Kurds have fired heavy rhetorical barrages the past few weeks. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani warned that if the Turks meddled in Kirkuk, "then we will take action for the 30 million Kurds in Turkey." The head of the Turkish general staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, responded that "from an exclusively military point of view," he favored an invasion of Iraq to clean out PKK havens. If the Turks do attack, counters one Kurdish official, "their own border will not be respected. They will not be the only ones to choose the battlefield."

A wild card in the Kurdish problem is Iran. Like the Turks, the Iranians have a restless Kurdish minority and would be tempted to intervene militarily against a militant group called PJAK that operates from Iraqi Kurdistan. Indeed, top Iranian military officers met in Ankara recently for discussions with the Turkish general staff about possible military contingencies in Iraq, according to one U.S. official.

Adding to this toxic brew is growing tension between the United States and Kurdish leaders. The Kurds were furious when they weren't given prior notice about a U.S. Special Forces raid in January that attempted to snatch two top Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers at the Irbil airport in Kurdistan. Unwitting Kurdish pesh merga troops at the airport nearly opened fire on the Americans. Although the airport raid was a failure, U.S. forces did manage to grab five Revolutionary Guard members at an Iranian consular office, which embarrassed the Kurdish leadership. The Kurds feel their friendship for America has been taken for granted.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech Massacre

The details of the tragic events from yesterday’s mass murder on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg continue to trickle out. We’ll learn more in days to come about the specifics (although there is already a Wikipedia page devoted to the incident).

What we do know at this time is that mass murders while rare are nothing particularly new and that, according to James Alan Fox in today’s L.A. Times, seven of the eight worse mass shootings in the United States in modern times have occurred in the last twenty-five years. So what has changed? The pace of modern life creates social pressures that push people to the edge who already lack a strong connection to family and community is certainly a factor. Another, of course, is the easy access to increasingly potent weapons.

Fox outlines five factors that seem to be common to all the incidents of mass murder in recent years:
First, perpetrators have a long history of frustration and failure and a diminished ability to cope with life's disappointments.

Second, they externalize blame, frequently complaining that others didn't give them a chance. Sometimes they argue that their ethnic or racial group or gender isn't getting the breaks that others are. (An example of this is Marc Lepine, who killed 14 female engineering students at the Ecole Polytechnique of the University of Montreal, apparently because he felt that women were taking too many seats at the university.)

Third, these killers generally lack emotional support from friends or family. You've read the "he always seemed to be something of a loner" quote? It has a grounding in reality.

Fourth, they generally suffer a precipitating event they view as catastrophic. This is most often some sort of major disappointment: the loss of a job or the breakup of a relationship. In massacres at colleges and universities, it's often about getting a grade the shooter feels he didn't deserve. In 1991, a graduate student at the University of Iowa killed five people because he thought his physics dissertation should have won a prestigious $1,000 award.

Fifth, they need access to a weapon powerful enough to satisfy their need for revenge.
These incidents are rare but catastrophic as yesterday’s shootings show. The need to want to know why this happened is understandable but the more important question we need to start asking is what are we going to do to either prevent another mass shooting or at least reduce the bloodshed.

Friday, April 13, 2007

More Friday Fun -- Charlie Chaplin in the ring

Two of my favorites -- boxing and Chalie Chaplin -- together in City Lights.

The neglect of “soft power” in the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy

The pursuit of foreign policy objectives requires the use of hard and soft power. Hard power, of course, is the use of military force. It is unfortunate but sometimes nations have to resort to arms.

Soft power is almost everything else. Soft power is used around the clock in various forms to pursue objectives while avoiding bloodshed at the same time. The Marshall Plan is a good example. The investment in the rebuilding of Western Europe following WWII helped avoid the far more costlier conflict that was in the making had Europe been left in its devastated state. In fact, an argument can be made that the Cold War was essentially won in Western Europe with the Marshall Plan – from that point on the Soviet Union was on the decline.

“Foreign aid” is such a dirty term in American politics. In the past it has been a standard part of the script for populist demagoguery to denounce the billions given away to ungrateful foreigners. Yet the reality is the United States devotes very little of its resources to the international affairs budget that funds all U.S. foreign affairs spending including foreign aid. It is shortsighted to say the least. Given the state of affairs around the world one would think the U.S. government would want to use all resources available to it but what happens instead is increasingly our foreign policy is being pursued through the military. By limiting our options we tend to engage in actions that are far more costly and deadlier than if pursued through the use of soft power. It also skews your perspective of the world. Like they say, if a hammer is the only tool you have then every problem begins to look like a nail.

Rosa Brooks has this assessment in today’s L.A. Times:
… The international affairs budget funds all U.S. foreign affairs spending. It funds the State Department, for instance, and the Peace Corps and exchange programs that allow U.S. students to study overseas. It funds U.S. contributions to peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, and it funds all our foreign assistance to developing countries: food aid, disaster relief, agricultural assistance, military training, democracy assistance, polio vaccinations, AIDS prevention and everything else you can think of.

"Hmm," you're probably thinking. "The international affairs budget may be unloved, but I'll bet it's huge, because that's a lot of stuff to fund." If you suspect that it's a huge budget, you're not alone. Americans have a long tradition of suspecting that we have a huge foreign aid budget. In 1997, 64% of Americans told pollsters that they thought our foreign aid budget was probably the single largest area of federal expenditures, higher than spending on the military, Social Security or Medicaid. In 2001, another poll asked Americans to estimate the percentage of federal spending that goes to foreign aid, and more than half the respondents guessed that foreign aid accounts for about 20% of the annual federal budget.

In fact, the international affairs budget is a 98-pound weakling of a budget, a puny thing that regularly gets sand kicked in its face by the big bruisers over at the Defense Department. Weighing in at $36.5 billion for fiscal year 2008, the international affairs budget annually accounts for only about 1% of total federal expenditures. It's dwarfed by the Defense Department's 2008 budget request ($481.4 billion for baseline funding, plus another $141.7 billion for GWOT, a.k.a. the global war on terror). And those figures don't even count the cost of the war in Iraq, which has been financed almost entirely through a series of "emergency" supplemental funding requests, to the tune of roughly $100 billion a year.

Yet the international affairs budget is a crucial part of our national security spending. Societies racked by conflict, poverty, injustice, famine and disease make ineffective allies. They may provide havens for terrorists and global criminal enterprises. They offer prime recruiting ground for extremist groups. In our interconnected world, the money we spend on international affairs is money invested in our long-term prosperity and security.

Few political leaders dispute this, in principle. But tunnel vision and short-term thinking have turned our international affairs budget into the neglected stepchild of national security spending. In the mid-1980s — during the heyday of the Reagan era — the U.S. spent 15% more on international affairs each year than we spend now. Meanwhile, growth in military spending under the Bush administration has dramatically outpaced growth in all other foreign affairs spending, creating a striking imbalance. In 2008, we're set to spend roughly $20 on the military for every $1 we spend on all other international programs. Increasingly, we're focusing on war and weapons to the exclusion of all other foreign policy tools.

And the rest of the world has taken note. In January, a BBC poll found that around the globe, only 29% of people now think that the U.S. has a "mainly positive influence in world affairs," while 52% considered our influence "mainly negative."
You can read her entire column here.

Friday Fun: Ernie Kovacs-The Interview

And check out the Ernie Kovacs blog at

Thursday, April 12, 2007

For a foreign policy promoting democracy, human rights and social welfare

Oxfam, the international relief organization based in London, has issued a report warning against disillusionment over the “misadventure” in Iraq and advocates a foreign policy focusing on protecting civilians and challenging human rights abuses around the world. The discussion is about British policy but the same argument applies to American foreign policy.

This is from the BBC yesterday regarding the Oxfam report:
The UK must not shy away from trying to resolve international crises despite the "terrible misadventure" in Iraq, a report from charity Oxfam argues.

It warns that it would be disastrous if the country was put off sending troops to future humanitarian crises like those seen in Sierra Leone and Kosovo.

But Oxfam says the UK's power to be an international force for good has been undermined by foreign policy errors.

The government said its actions abroad in the past decade had been effective.

Meanwhile, a separate report by the Oxford Research Group (ORG) has warned that UK and US policy towards Iraq has "spawned new terror in the region".

The International Committee of the Red Cross also published a report on Wednesday which said every aspect of life was getting worse for ordinary Iraqis.

Four years after the US-led invasion, the ICRC says the conflict is inflicting immense suffering, and calls for greater protection of civilians.

The Oxfam report, A Fair Foreign Policy, argues that the positive effect of interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo should not be forgotten amid debate about Iraq.

"The Iraq war was a terrible misadventure, but it must not cause future prime ministers to return to the caution of the previous Conservative government.

"That administration stood by while the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda unfolded. We must say 'never again' as much to our failure to stop these atrocities, as to repeating Iraq."

Meanwhile, the ORG study argues that by including Iraq in the "war on terror", Britain and the US have "created a combat training zone for jihadists".

The strategy has also "emboldened" Iran, Syria and North Korea and led to a resurgence of the Taleban in Afghanistan, it said.

And it added that the continuing military action has increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11.
You can read the entire BBC piece here and a summary of the Oxfam report here.

The report speaks to the people of the United Kingdom regarding their government but the same case can (and should) be made for American policy. While not forgetting the damage done, it is important to look beyond the current floundering by the Bush administration in Iraq. Americans seem always prone to want to withdraw from the world after bad experiences abroad. However, right-wing isolationism and its left-wing counterpart disguised under the banner of anti-imperialism are no longer realistic options in a global economy.

The neo-conservative interventionism to use American power to promote American power is little better – basically they are isolationists with guns. While they use much of the same rhetoric of liberal internationalists regarding the promotion of democracy they believe what is good for the United States is good for the rest of the world and use military force to enforce that position. They eschew international concerns and commitments. To them, multilateralism is a dirty word.

Realism has been the dominant school of foreign policy under Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. The realists believe the United States should only do what is in its interest. They do not believe in values, only interests. There are no friends, only temporary allies. Thus support for Saddam Hussein during the war with Iran (which he started), then turning around and going to war against Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait, then leaving him in power when he is defeated in that war, then encouraging the Iraqi people to rise up against him and doing absolutely nothing to support the Iraqi people when he crushes this rebellion reflects no contradictions to the realists but simple adjustments to policy made to maintain the balance of power which is perceived to be in American interests. This, of course, results in no small amount of cynicism towards Americans – just ask the Kurds.

It is liberal internationalism (a.k.a. progressive realism) that holds the best hope for the future of the United States. Liberal Internationalists generally believe American foreign policy should be promoting democracy, human rights and social welfare in conjunction with the international community. It is through this promotion of the well being of all and stability of the rest of the world that American interests are best served. They believe the sheer extent of American power carries with it a universal obligation. If innocent people are victimized, particularly in cases of genocide, and the United States has the means to protect them, then there is no escaping the responsibility – military action is not only justified but a moral requirement.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Egypt becomes center of torture in war on terror

Egypt systematically abuses prisoners with torture and years of detention without trial according to a report by Amnesty International. The abuses are committed in the name of national security while other nations, notably the U.S., “have chosen to send detainees there in the context of the global war on terror” according to the report.

This is from today’s Washington Post:
The London-based group said 18,000 people were in Egyptian jails without trial, including some who have been held for more than a decade. The torture has included electric shocks, suspension by the wrists or ankles and psychological pressure, such as rape threats against prisoners or their female relatives, the report said.

Cabinet spokesman Magdy Rady denied that torture was systematic.

"We, as a government, cannot condone at all any kind of torture," Rady said. "When we hear of torture, we deal with it in a legal way."

The 18,000 number came from Egyptian rights groups who disputed the Interior Ministry's figures of 3,000 to 4,000, Amnesty official Said Haddidi told a press conference. Rady said he could not comment on the figures because he had not read Amnesty's report.

Amnesty criticized the government for using the war on terror to justify amendments to the constitution that increased the government's security powers.

The group was particularly concerned about an amendment that suspended civil rights in terror investigations and enabled the state to prosecute civilians in military courts, which are known for taking shortcuts with due process. The changes were approved in a referendum last month that was widely criticized for massive rigging.

"Governments have an obligation to protect their citizens," Curt Goering, the deputy executive director of Amnesty International in the United States, told The Associated Press. "But in so doing, they can't pursue measures that in the process result in the wholesale destruction of fundamental human rights."

Amnesty's deputy Middle East director, Hassiba Hadj Sahroui, said the situation was getting worse "in the sense that the safeguards against torture in the constitution have been undermined."

Amnesty said detainees sent to Egypt under the rendition policy were tortured and denied the right to appear in court. It cited the accounts of five detainees, including an Egyptian cleric who says he was kidnapped in Italy and transferred to Egypt for interrogation. Italy has indicted 26 Americans and five Italian agents accused of seizing the cleric.

Osama Hassan Mustafa Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, said that once in Egypt, he was sodomized, stripped naked, and beaten with electric cables and water hoses, and given electric shocks while being pinned to a wet mattress.

"I was placed near torture chambers for long periods of time to hear the screams of the tortured and their moans and their howls, so that I would collapse psychologically and, sure enough, I experienced episodes of epilepsy and passing out," he wrote in a letter that was smuggled out of prison.

The Bush administration has insisted it receives guarantees from countries receiving terror suspects that prisoners will not be tortured.
You can read the entire Washington Post piece here as well as another story from the BBC here.

Selling off the African rainforest

Reminiscent of tales about the purchase of Manhattan from natives in exchange for beads comes this story that tracts of rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo covering an area the size of the United Kingdom have been obtained by logging companies from the United States, Singapore and various European countries for bags of sugar and crates of beer.

Of course, there is more to be outraged about than just a bad deal for the locals. This is about the ultimate destruction of a vast area of rainforest with profound negative impact on the environment as well on the lives of people in central Africa. A report from Greenpeace International argues, “international logging companies are causing social chaos and wreaking environmental havoc. It also reveals how the World Bank, by far the largest donor to the DRC, is failing to stop this destruction whilst the rainforest is being sold off under the illusion that it will alleviate poverty in one of the poorest countries on Earth.”

This from today’s Guardian:
Vast tracts of the world's second-largest rainforest have been obtained by a small group of European and American industrial logging companies in return for minimal taxes and gifts of salt, sugar and tools, a two-year investigation will disclose today.

More than 150 contracts covering an area of rainforest nearly the size of the United Kingdom have been signed with 20 companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past three years. Many are believed to have been illegally allocated in 2002 by a transition government emerging from a decade of civil wars and are in defiance of a World Bank moratorium.

According to the report, the companies, mainly from Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Singapore and the US, are already stripping from the 21m hectares (52m acres) of forest, primarily to extract African teak, which sells for more than £500 a cubic metre and is widely used for flooring, furniture and doors in Britain.

According to the 100-page study, compiled by Greenpeace International working with Congolese ecological and human rights groups, if all the forests identified for logging are felled, it could "release" up to 34bn tonnes of carbon - nearly as much as Britain has emitted in 60 years.

To gain access to the forests for the next 25 years, the European companies have made agreements with village chiefs, offering bags of salt, machetes and bicycles, and in some cases promised to build rudimentary schools, the report states.

Yesterday the companies admitted that many of the agreements that they have signed with local communities in return for gifts needed to be reassessed. "Many of the criticisms are valid. The companies are now going to re-evaluate all the agreements made with communities," said Francoise van de Ven, secretary general of the Congolese Timber Industries Federation, which represents all the international firms named in the report.

Hilary Benn, the UK international development secretary, said: "50 million people rely on the rainforest of the Congo for food, shelter and livelihoods. We rely on it as an ecological handbreak for our rapidly changing climate."

The report criticises the World Bank for encouraging logging in Congo in the knowledge that corruption was rife. It refused to comment until the report has been published.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Poverty and turmoil in Assam leave women and girls vulnerable to south Asia sex trade

Assam is a north east state in India. It has experienced a separatist movement since the 1980’s that has resulted in ongoing violence. The fighting has displaced large numbers of people and has impacted negatively on the social structure of its various communities. This deterioration of local society takes its toll on the weakest. For example, Assam has one of the worse areas in India for child abuse -- according to a study over 86% of the children in the region suffer sexual abuse of one form or another.

Other victims of this turmoil are women and girls. Approximately, two females a day from Assam disappear. Most of them end up as commodities in south Asia’s sex trade.

This is from the BBC:
The biggest problem in India's north-eastern state of Assam is separatist militancy. But it faces another, less well known issue. Thousands of its women, old and young, have gone missing over the past 10 years.

A recent police report says 3,184 women and 3,840 female children have gone missing in the state since 1996.

That's around two females a day on average.

The report was compiled by Assam police and their research branch, the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

The local police are far too busy, according to Assam police intelligence chief Khagen Sarmah, fighting insurgents.

"Our counter-insurgency commitments affects our normal policing duties like checking trafficking."

"Too many policemen are involved fighting the insurgents rather than following up on other crimes," Mr Sarmah said.

The Assam police recently rescued some girls working as call-girls around Delhi or used as "sex slaves" by wealthy landlords in states like Punjab and Haryana.

Most of them are from camps of internally displaced people dotting Assam, particularly the Kokrajhar district.

That area is home to nearly a quarter of a million people who were displaced in the late 1990s.

Nearly 800 people died in ethnic fighting in Kokrajhar and adjoining districts between Bodo tribes people and non-Bodo communities over a decade long period from 1994.

The police survey revealed an organised racket of "recruiters" who lured good-looking women with job offers outside the state.

"We arrested some recruiters but could never put an end to the rackets fully," said police official Anil Phukan.

The modus operandi is simple: good looking women in the displaced peoples camps are offered jobs.

The parents are paid a few thousand rupees in advance, and told the daughters will send back money once they start working.

Once they go away, that rarely happens.

The Calcutta Research Group, in its recent study on conflict-induced displacement says that the displaced people in Assam live in acute poverty.

The situation has led the women in particular to desperately seek work elsewhere; even if the offers come from dubious people.

"This is because the government officials running the camps never created viable livelihood options," says Uddipana Goswami of the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS).

Ms Goswami has worked on the displaced camps in Assam.

"Many displaced women have such exquisite craftsmanship but nobody ever tried to convert that into income alternatives," she says.

Professor Banerjee says trafficking ignores borders therefore solutions cannot be left to local agencies alone.

"This is not a local or even a national problem."

"This reflects the global reality, so intervention by international organisations may help check trafficking."
You can read the entire story here.